REFSQ Panel session on Open Data and RE Education


April 15, 2021

Together with Alessio Ferrari, I organized a panel at the well-regarded conference on Requirements Engineering: Foundation for System Quality, which is a mouthful but really nice working session on RE that has always nicely blended practice and research. It also was the first place to accept one of my papers so I will always have a soft spot for it, and for Essen, industrial city or not.

The purpose of the session was to encourage open data packages in the context of RE Education (the aim, I think, is to have subsequent OpenRE tracks at REFSQ change theme). We got excellent submissions and accepted three packages, which we have hosted at the existing repository of the RE Education and Training (REET) workshop.

After the short talks on the packages, we turned to a panel with the theme of “RE in the age of COVID”. Our hope was to collect some experiences from the attendees (40 or so) on how they approached RE education, and RE in general, during the COVID induced shift to online learning. We definitely got that and more generally, I think it was a cathartic session to commiserate and share with others the challenges of the past few terms.

A few lessons I drew from the discussion:

Participants were a bit torn on the need to completely redesign the curriculum vs sticking with the previous content. “Maybe my course was boring and remained boring!” Of course in some cases just getting online was sufficiently challenging to prevent major redesigns. In general projects worked well in both formats. There was some thought that lab exercises worked better, since it was easier to checkin—students were in a fixed location!

Learner styles or perhaps preferences (since “styles” are not a thing) was something we didn’t have a good handle on. Some students definitely prefer online. But no one had data on who is doing better, and who is doing worse, online vs offline. For example, students seem to appreciate recorded lectures, but mostly to replay/relisten. The downside is it is harder to get questions in a recorded lecture. Even in more normal settings, students are not always sold on flipped classroom. Then there is the problem of video content: should we re-record videos? In the end it’s about making the content relatable and helping them through the struggle with it. Thus there is no substitute or tech fix for the need to demonstrate empathy, use multiple learning techniques, and I suppose the things we know work well in teaching regardless of venue.

There was growing recognition that—online and off—bringing some levity and enthusiasm, such as via Serious Games, was critical to keep people engaged in the Youtube and Netflix era. Dan Berry, who has a charismatic personality, suggests we think about being a comic. But of course that will not work for everyone. Even during ‘normal’ lectures, it is not uncommon for 60 students to turn into 3-4 actively participating, 15-20 in class, and some coming merely to sleep.

In other settings, participants acknowledged a need to maybe step away from the computer and do a lecture from outdoors, away from disruptions. The 1 year mark of the pandemic led to a let down in formality, with less emphasis on formal backgrounds and acknowledgement that it was ok for it to be weird.

There were a few folks who ran hybrid classes, where the university allowed some reduced subset to attend class. The popularity of this depended greatly on the perceived safety level. There were often technical challenges e.g. mic’ing students and sanitizing mic before answering a question, how to get video that made remote participants still feel engaged (e.g., eye contact).

The final takeaway was about student well-being. Birgit Penzenstadler, who studies this in her research, emphasized the need to meaningfully check in and get beyond the “how are you doing” question. This is, as she points out, precisely an RE elicitation problem, e.g. “what is the biggest impediment” you are currently facing. We agreed that for most of us, the reality of needing to meaningfully check-in was hitherto unappreciated, and something that is completely independent of learning modality or current global crises. Meaningful checkins are certainly something I will be including in my own teaching practice, online or off (but I hope in person!).